French Open 2019: David Goffin’s performance against Rafael Nadal is a source for hope, for himself as well as the field
David Goffin would be leaving Paris with his head held high, in the knowledge that he played his part in making the match worthy of the occasion
Nadal was all over Goffin, pushing him far behind the baseline and dictating the play efficiently with his forehand
Goffin is not among the tallest of players, and good height is generally considered a prerequisite to be able to deal with Nadal’s high-bouncing forehand
The problem with Goffin’s strategy, however, is that it is extremely difficult to maintain the accuracy required for it
Friday, 31 May 2019 was an important day in the tennis universe, for it marked the 10th anniversary of Robin Soderling’s stunning win over Rafael Nadal in the French Open fourth round. That loss, as we all know, was Nadal’s first ever at Roland Garros after years of apparent invincibility – and one of just two he has ever suffered there.
10 years on from that stop-the-presses event, Nadal was again on Court Philippe Chatrier, running all around the court in a bid to add even more to his legacy. The opponent this time wasn’t quite as imposing as Soderling though; it was the diminutive David Goffin, who weighs practically half as much as the well-built Swede.
In the first two sets of the match, that difference in physicality was starkly evident. Nadal was all over Goffin, pushing him far behind the baseline and dictating the play efficiently with his forehand. Serve, return, forehand, backhand – whatever Goffin did, Nadal did better. And on the few occasions that the Belgian had the chance to take control of a point, he invariably made a mess of it with an unforced error.
This didn’t feel like a match between two players playing the same sport. It felt like a contest between a heavyweight and a lightweight – and that too on the heavyweight’s home turf.
So what changed in the third set? It could have been any number of things, but the easiest explanation is that Goffin rediscovered the range on his groundstrokes – groundstrokes that can trouble even the great Nadal on clay.
Goffin is not among the tallest of players on the tour, and good height is generally considered a prerequisite to be able to deal with Nadal’s high-bouncing forehand. But what Goffin does have is some of the sweetest timing you’ll ever see on a tennis court. The Belgian makes up for his lack of raw power with a buttery smooth racquet swing that can seemingly generate pace out of thin air.
After saving three break points at the start of the third set, Goffin became visibly freer with his shot-making. He cut down on his errors, and more importantly, he started stepping into the court to neutralize Nadal’s spin and gain the ascendancy in the rallies.
The Goffin backhand was the single most important shot in that brief but electric passage of play when he was dominating. Taking the ball on the rise with his two-hander and crunching it crosscourt with pace and depth, the Belgian used the frequently attempted but rarely successful template of attacking Nadal’s greatest strength, his forehand. What worked for Goffin particularly well was that he also finished points effectively with his own forehand when he got a short enough reply – and again by hitting it inside-out or down the line, to the Nadal forehand.
After failing to get a single break point in the first two sets, Goffin not only manufactured multiple break points in the third but also took one of them. He then calmly served out the set to plant a seed of doubt or two in the Spaniard’s mind; this match was clearly not as straightforward as everyone thought it would be.
The problem with Goffin’s strategy, however, is that it is extremely difficult to maintain the accuracy required for it. His backhand started producing a few more errors in the fourth set than it did in the third, and that was all the invitation Nadal needed to regain control of the proceedings.
Against Nadal on clay, you have to win points on your own terms, because he is sure as heck isn’t going to give away any. You have to take the bull by the horns, or else the bull will trample you. While Goffin did take the game to Nadal for a set, he couldn’t do it for two. But even that one set was a sign of progress, considering his travails over the last year.
Goffin has always had a tough time with injuries, and that unfortunate association continued after his breakthrough 2017 season, where he reached the summit clash at the ATP Finals. He suffered a freak injury in Rotterdam last year which rendered him out of commission for nearly a month. Then he hurt himself at Cincinnati, and again after the US Open; he played just one match in the last three months of 2018.
He’s been relatively healthy in 2019, but through the first five months, the effort of hitting the reset button over and over again seemed to have finally taken a toll on him. After spinning his wheels through the hardcourt season, stumbling from one listless loss to another, he showed a spark of a resurgence in Rome where he defeated Stan Wawrinka. But that comeback attempt was again short-lived, as he was dispatched by Juan Martin del Potro in the next round.
Suffice to say there weren’t too many expectations from Goffin as he headed to the year’s second Major. But now he can proudly say that he has taken a set off Nadal at Roland Garros, which makes his prospects look much better for the rest of the year.
“I’m going on the grass with some – a lot of positive things. I think my game came back. In this tournament, I was playing well. I was more creative, more positive, more competitive as well,” Goffin said after the match.
It’s hard to disagree with any of that. What he could have also added, but which he is probably too humble to say, is that he pulled off the seemingly impossible for a set. He showed that the blueprint to counter Nadal’s game at Roland Garros is still very much alive – if only you’ve got the courage and the skill to stick to it for a sustained period of time.
The rest of the men’s players left in the draw would have looked very closely at Goffin’s performance. On the surface, it may not look like much; Nadal did, after all, drop just one set, and he never seriously looked in danger of losing the match. But considering how rare even this is – the Spaniard has lost just two sets at Roland Garros since 2015 – it is a source of hope.
As for Goffin himself, he would be leaving Paris with his head held high, in the knowledge that he played his part in making the match worthy of the occasion. He may not have achieved the earth-shattering result on Friday that Soderling did on 31 May 2009. But exactly 10 years to the day he did give us a reminder of how the humble two-handed backhand can, if only for a while, subdue the greatest forehand ever seen on clay.
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